Prairie Pop: How the Village People conquered the mainstream

The Village People
Victory of the Village People: The ’70s band wore gay pride on its fabulous sleeve. — photo by Mario Casciano

Performance artists and matrimonial ceremonies usually don’t mix, but the Village People have nonetheless been a wedding party staple for years. Like all great performance art, this group began as a concept—one hatched by two French music producers: Jacques Morali, who was very much gay, and Henri Belolo, a straight man with a sense of humor.

They had previously struck gold with a series glitter-camp disco hits by The Ritchie Family before coming up with an idea for a new group in 1977. While walking the streets of New York’s West Village, Morali and Belolo glimpsed a beautiful young man dressed in a full Native American costume. The curious music producers tailed him into a bar, where he was a tabletop dancer who served as eye candy for customers dressed in macho drag.

“You know, this is fantastic,” Jacques Morali reportedly thought to himself, “to see the cowboy, the Indian, the construction worker with other men around.” The dancer’s name was Felipe Rose, and he became the first member of the Village People (which was named after the popular gay district where “the Indian” was discovered). Before the group had even been fully assembled, Morali sold the idea to Casablanca Records—the biggest disco label of that era.

“Jack was gay,” Henri Belolo said in the 2012 documentary The Secret Disco Revolution, “and he wanted to make a statement about the fact that he was and was not shy or ashamed about it. He also had a lot of humor and he wanted to do a double-entendre and still have it work on the dance floor.”

The Village People’s self-titled debut album contained just four songs, three of which were named after homosexual hotspots: “San Francisco (You Got Me),” “In Hollywood (Everybody Is a Star)” and “Fire Island” (whose lyrics warned, “Don’t go in the bushes/Something might grab ya!”). This gay travelogue continued with songs like “Key West” and “Sodom and Gomorrah,” from the group’s second album.

They were the musical equivalent of a rainbow-and-glitter confetti cannon that spewed fairy dust on America, eventually remaking it in the Village People’s own image. Some of the original members were heterosexual, including lead singer Victor Willis—“the cop”—but in a unique twist for that era, the group’s straight members initially closeted their sexuality so not to alienate their gay fanbase.

The Village People played a key role in assimilating gay culture within America’s mainstream after decades of being shoved back into the culture industry’s closet. It was a return of the repressed, though many sexually repressed heterosexuals were quite clueless about the group—whose music became the frothy soundtrack for aerobics classes, barbeques and other wholesome Middle American activities.

In her book Hot Stuff, historian Alice Echols notes that the gay macho drag look adopted by the Village People was often misread by straights as standard-issue masculinity. For instance, Casablanca Records publicist Ken Friedman conducted market research to determine how much heterosexual audiences were aware of the queerness that permeated disco. Friedman concluded that “straights don’t see the gay culture, they’ve only seen what they’ve made—the styles.”

Take, for example, “In the Navy”—a hit song about living in close quarters with other men (sample opening lines: “Where you can find pleasure/search the world for treasure … play in sports and skin dive”). Inexplicably, United States Navy officials allowed the Village People to shoot a promotional video for “In the Navy” on one of its warships. The Navy even seriously considered using the flamboyant performance piece in a recruiting campaign, but, alas, that never came to pass.


Another example of the masses missing the point was “Y.M.C.A.,” an ode to a popular spot on 23rd Street where men cruised for anonymous sex (the song was included on the appropriately titled Cruisin’ album). As the grandmas, married couples and other assorted breeders spelled out Y, M, C and A with their arms, they obviously tuned out lyrics like “They have everything for you men to enjoy/You can hang out with all the boys.”

Even though many straight people never picked up on all this subtext, the militantly homophobic Christian crusader Anita Bryant saw through the sinister, glittery veil. She apparently once telegrammed the White House, imploring President Jimmy Carter to deport the Village People’s gay, French Svengali to keep him from further perverting the minds of America’s young.

Pop songs are insidious because they can creep past gatekeepers that try to keep the forces of social change at bay. One of the most powerful things about popular music is the fact that records are relatively cheap to make and distribute—compared to, say, motion pictures and television programs. “It was a no-brainer, and it wasn’t expensive,” said Larry Harris, Vice President of Casablanca Records, about the company’s investment in the group. “I think the initial outlay was $60,000 or something.”

After pumping out four hit albums in rapid succession, the Village People’s party abruptly ended after releasing their craptastic masterpiece Can’t Stop the Music. This minor motion picture landed in theaters dead on arrival during disco’s last commercial gasp in 1980. In a bid to lure in skeptical hetero audiences, the screenwriters turned the cop, army guy, cowboy, construction worker, Indian and, yes, even the leather man into straight lady-lovin’ characters.

To bolster the film’s heterosexual cred, the producers cast buxom b-team actress Valerie Perrine and the all-American Olympic gold winner (and Wheaties cereal box star) Bruce Jenner. After charges circulated in the gay press that Jacques Morali had sold out to the straight mainstream, he insisted, perhaps with a hint of whimsy, “Look, make no mistake about it, I am the number one public relations man for the gay world.”

Even though the Village People had to walk the straight and narrow in Can’t Stop the Music—making due with a wink and nod—straight folks eventually figured out the joke. Many didn’t find it very funny, and some were outright pissed. This helped fuel the “disco sucks” battle cry that sent thousands of hard-rocking Bravehearts on a rampage, and by the time box office receipts were counted, disco was dead. But Jacques Morali had the last laugh, for his pop culture performance art piece continues to live on at weddings, on the radio and in our heads.

Kembrew McLeod will be working on the following disco dance moves in anticipation of a New Year’s Eve dance-off: The Bus Stop, The Bump, The Hustle and The Dishrag.

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